Monday, August 27, 2007

Death at a Funeral

Not much to say about this one - it's good, but not great, and I think it's weird that so many reviews seem to be treating it like some sort of big comeback for Frank Oz. I'm all for Frank Oz making a big comeback, and The Stepford Wives was ten sorts of awful, but I just don't see this as that big a deal. I mean, consider Cold Comfort Farm, which is one of my favorite movies of my college years (even beyond "see, I was into Kate Beckinsale before all the rest of you"), but did it herald a big John Schlesinger comeback? Not really. It is nice that a good director like Oz or Schlesinger can get out of the Hollywood system and just make a good movie. It would have been really nice, though, if Death at a Funeral were nearly as funny as Cold Comfort Farm.

Death at a Funeral

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2007 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

There's something almost quaint about Death at a Funeral; it could have been made and set up to a hundred years earlier with just a few details being changed. Maybe it would have been better that way; this farce about a dysfunctional English family stiff-upper-lipping their way through a disastrous funeral might occasionally have benefited from having to be a little more restrained, or a little less old-fashioned.

Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) is attempting to run the affair, which is not off to an auspicious start, with the undertakers initially bringing the wrong body. His wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) seems more worried about whether he has delivered the down payment on a flat in the city, so that they can sell the house if Daniel's mother Sandra (Jane Asher) will live with her other son, Robert (Rupert Graves) in New York. Every mourner expects Robert, a successful writer, to deliver the eulogy, which just makes Daniel feel more slighted. Also in attendance are nephew Troy (Kris Marshall), a student chemist; his sister Martha (Daisy Donovan); her nervous fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk); hypochondriac family friend Howard (Andy Nyman); Justin (Ewen Bremner), who is smitten with Martha; and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), the requisite cranky wheelchair-bound old man. Also appearing is Peter (Peter Dinklage); no-one else recognizes him but he feels entitled to something, even beyond being there.

This is fairly well-worn ground, but to a certain extent that means that the material is well-tested; most everybody knows their role, and how this kind of comedy works, and as such they don't slip up very often. Writer Dean Craig and director Frank Oz generally balance irreverence with sincerity; they're careful to make sure that their characters aren't too peculiar; otherwise, the movie would just become a grotesquerie about people who are eccentric and stupid for no good reason. They do test the limit of that on occasion - these days, apparently even British comedies about repressed family tension have scatological bits which are momentum-crushingly unfunny, and a recurring bit about the Valium that Martha gives Simon actually being a designer hallucinogen goes on for a very long time before paying off as something other than getting a disconnected laugh out of Alan Tudyk acting crazy every few minutes.

Full review at HBS.

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